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Cotey: Plant High's James Wilder Jr. is fearless, and peerless

He still has one game to play.

There are still players to run over.

A few stiff-arms to throw.

And, if he has his way, a couple of touchdowns to score and one last state title to secure.

But it's time to ask the question, after another performance that left the mouths of those watching agape:

Is Plant High's James Wilder Jr. the greatest prep football player in Tampa Bay history?

And if a team of Lakeland's national renown can't stop him from running wild for five touchdowns, and he can stop its record-setting running back on fourth down in the open field and recover a fumble and block a kick, and opposing cheerleaders come up to him afterward for autographs and pictures, well, do we even need to ask that question?

"This guy, to me, is the best player we've ever played against because when he's on the field he does so many things for them; he's a man among men," said Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas coach George Smith, who, by the way, has been coaching 34 years, won five championships and has yet to actually even play against Wilder (though his team will get that chance in Friday's Class 5A state final).

The tape, though, doesn't lie.

Smith is busy this week watching clips of a guy running over, past and through defenses, a guy coming off the edge and destroying quarterbacks, a guy blocking kicks and being, in my estimation, what makes him the best: destructive.

How to stop Wilder is Smith's greatest concern this week. It's an elusive answer and involves an entire coaching staff.

Wilder is unique in that he is not a great linebacker just playing running back or a great running back just playing linebacker.

He is a great running back.

He is a great linebacker.

"We were going over that this weekend and trying to go back in history to see if there was a guy who had the dynamics that James brings to a team," Smith said. "I remember when we played Danny Wuerffel back in '91 when he was at Fort Walton. He certainly controlled the game and did so many great things and was just a man among men. But when you're dealing with James, you're dealing with a guy that never leaves the field, where Wuerffel was just an offensive guy."

Wilder, rated the No. 1 high school player in the country by some and committed to Florida State where he will play running back, owns one state title, which he led Plant to last season with a series of mind-numbing runs. He carried defenders like newlyweds dragging empty cans on their way out of town.

He'll go for a second championship Friday.

Best ever?

Or have we just seen nothing like him before?

"I don't know that there's ever been a player in the county who is so dominant in so many different spots at one time," said his coach, Robert Weiner. "So I do think there's probably never been a player, and I haven't seen a guy on film throughout the county, who can really, really, really, completely put his stamp and dominate a football game like James can.

"I mean, he's absolutely the most destructive force on defense that I've ever witnessed. And he's now become the kind of guy on offense that can carry a team — and I mean the opposing team — on his back."

Wilder's runs last season against Armwood, Countryside, Lakeland and Bradenton Manatee are the stuff of legend, and he has been adding to that list in 2010.

Against Lakeland last week, Wilder ran for 215 yards and five touchdowns for a Panthers team playing without its Division I-A, Alabama-bound quarterback.

We have seen great players in the past.

In 1999, the St. Petersburg Times listed the top 100 all-time players in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

You can argue Wilder is better than Tampa Catholic's Kenny Kelly, Gibbs' Shaun King and Pasco's Darren Hambrick, who top three of those lists.

Hernando's Jerome Brown makes me pause, because he shared that same disruptive quality that makes Wilder so good. Defensively, Brown might have had no peer, and in Brooksville his exploits are legend.

He was not, however, the offensive force that Wilder is.

There have been others who have left indelible marks in more ways than one. Zephyr­hills offensive lineman/linebacker Ryan Pickett, still banging around in the NFL, and Springstead's Ed Chester dominated on both sides of the ball. TC's Darrell Jackson redefined the wide receiver position in Tampa Bay. Jefferson's Caldwell brothers, Donald and Andre, were feared, and Gaither's Lydell Ross and Robinson's Zain Gilmore were unstoppable.

The list goes on and on: St. Petersburg Catholic's Chris Davis, Plant's Aaron Murray, St. Petersburg's Stacy Manning. And further back: SPC's Marty Lyons, Jefferson's Rick Casares, Hillsborough's Steve Kiner, Blake's Leon McQuay, Robinson's duo of John Reaves and Larry Smith.

And why not Jefferson's Quentin Williams?

The most common argument against Wilder as best ever might be Robert Marve, the former Plant quarterback who also possessed that rare ability to win games on his own, to make the amazing play, to lift everyone around him and to rise to the occasion in every playoff game.

But Wilder still has one game to play.

One more argument to make.

My mind, however, is already made up.

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]

State finals

All games at the Citrus Bowl, Orlando. Admission is $10. TV: Sun Sports/FSN

Class 5A: Plant vs. St. Thomas Aquinas, 7 p.m. Friday

Class 4A: Armwood vs. Tallahassee Lincoln, 1 p.m. Saturday

Class 3A: Jefferson vs. Miami Norland, 1 p.m. Friday

On the Web

If you can't make the games this weekend, we'll be live blogging all three local state finals.

Cotey: Plant High's James Wilder Jr. is fearless, and peerless 12/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010 11:12pm]
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